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St. Edmund, King of East Anglia - © Nash Ford PublishingSt. Edmund of East Anglia,
King of East Anglia

(Died AD 870) 

When King Aethelweard of East Anglia died in AD 855, he was the last of the Royal House of East Anglia. So his subjects sent to their old homeland in Angeln for a successor. A distant cousin, named Edmund, arrived and took the Throne. Edmund was a contemporary of the piratical Swedish King of Zealand and Uppsala, named Ragnarr Lothbrok (or Hairy-breeches). Fate was to bring Edmund and Ragnarr together in a situation which would not end happily for either of them.

One day, Ragnarr took his hawk and went, unattended, in a little boat to catch small birds and wild-fowl on the sea coast and in the islands of Denmark. While thus engaged, he was surprised by a sudden storm and carried out to sea and, after having been tossed about for several days and nights, was at last carried, in sore distress, to the English coast, and landed at Redham (Norfolk) in the Kingdom of East Anglia. The people of that country, by chance, found him with his hawk and presented him as a sort of prodigy to Edmund, their king, who gave him an honourable reception. Lothbrok lived for some time at the east Anglian court and, as the Danish tongue is very like English, he began to relate to the king by what chance he had been driven to the coast of England. The accomplished manners and military discipline of King Edmund and his attendants impressed Lothbrok. Desirous of learning Saxon ways, especially in hunting, Lothbrok gained permission to remain at court and attached himself to the king's huntsman, whose name was Bjorn. Lothbrok, however, became so successful at hunting and hawking, that he became a quick favourite of the king and Bjorn became jealous. He soon hated the man and one day, when they were hunting together, attacked him and slew him. He then left his body in some bushes and returned home with his dogs. However, Lothbrok’s greyhound, which he had reared at the court, remained watchful by his master's side.

The next day, as King Edmund sat at his table, he missed Lothbrok's company and anxiously asked what had become of him. Bjorn, the huntsman, answered that he had tarried behind in a wood, and he had seen no more of him. As he spoke, however, Lothbrok's dog came into the hall and began to wag its tail and make a fuss of the king. Thinking that Ragnarr would not be far behind, the dog was fed, but afterwards it departed, returning to its dead master. Hunger forced it to return to the court three days later and this time, Edmund had it followed. Of course, his servants discovered Lothbrok’s body and he had it honorably buried. Disturbed by this turn of events, King Edmund set up an enquiry into his new friend’s death and, remarkably, Bjorn the huntsman was caught and convicted of the crime. He was condemned to be put into Lodbrok’s own boat and exposed on the sea without sail or oar, so that God could decide his fate. Unhappily, he made it all the way across to Denmark, where Ragnarr’s many sons from his four marriages recognised their father’s boat. Seizing Bjorn, they tortured him until he falsely revealed that Lothbrok had been put to death by Edmund, King of the East Angles. Accordingly, three of Ragnarr’s sons, Ubbe, Ivarr the Boneless and Halfdan Wide-Embrace, assembled an army and invaded England, to avenge on Edmund the murder of their father.

A more probable version of Ragnarr’s adventures in England suggests that, having successfully raided France and captured Paris, he and his men turned their attentions across the Channel. They landed in Northumbria, but were defeated in battle for the first (and only) time, by King Aelle II of that kingdom. The Northumbrians captured Ragnarr, and the King ordered him to be thrown into a dungeon full of poisonous vipers. As he was slowly bitten to death, he sang his death song and, thinking of his many sons, he exclaimed "How the little pigs would grunt if they knew the situation of the old boar!"

It was in AD 865, that Ubbe, Ivarr and Halfdan arrived in East Anglia with their 'Great Heathen Army' of Vikings. King Edmund, however, bought peace with them for a supply of horses. By the following year, they were riding north to Northumbria, where they captured York. In AD 867, Aelle II of Northumbria and his rival, Osbert, joined forces to expel the Vikings from the city, but were thoroughly defeated in battle. Osbert was killed and Aelle captured and 'spread-eagled' for having murdered Ragnarr Lothbrok. After a year of raiding, Ivarr and Ubbe left Halfdan in York and turned their 'The Great Heathen Army' on East Anglia once more. Ivarr’s forces were attacked by King Edmund whilst divided from those of Ubbe and both sides suffered severely. Ubbe then joined Ivarr at Thetford, and the united army attacked Edmund again. His force was far outnumbered and he was routed. Edmund and Bishop Humbert of Elmham, were taken in the church at Haegelisdun (traditionally Hoxne, but possibly Hellesdon near Norwich or Hellesdon in Bradfield St. Clare). Humbert was despatched with a sword, but Edmund was given to the Viking archers, who bound him to a tree and used him as target practice. Still alive, he was torn from the trunk and beheaded. His head flung into a thicket and his body left to rot for a whole year. Eventually, the Danes retired and the king's body was recovered and his head was sought in the wood. As those searching called in the wood to one another, asking where the head was, they heard a voice calling, "Here! here! here!". It was the head calling to them from among the brambles, where it was guarded by a great grey wolf. It was buried in a small chapel nearby and later moved to Bedricsworth, afterwards called Bury St. Edmunds.


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